3 September 1999

Hart-felt field size formula

Modulation, or capping

support payments to allow

money to be redirected to

other areas – such as an

early retirement scheme –

is one of the topics included

in the latest government

consultation document.

Oxon farmer Stephen Hart

has a radical idea about how

that could be implemented,

as John Burns found out

MODULATION according to field size and type of boundary would deliver most of the objectives MAFF lists in its latest consultation A new direction for agriculture, claims Oxfordshire sheep and arable farmer Stephen Hart.

The consultation document makes clear that MAFFs over-riding aim is to help agriculture become more competitive by increasing farm size and by producing what consumers want.

Mr Hart is convinced that on many farms it is field size rather than total farm size which limits efficiency and, therefore, competitiveness.

He also believes consumers want the landscape kept much as it is, perhaps with greater emphasis on wildlife habitats, and that they want the countryside worked by many farmers, not by agri-businesses.

Those specifications are better met by the livestock areas of Britain, which have naturally richer landscapes enhanced by the patchwork of small fields with traditional boundaries of hedges and trees, or walls, he insists.

Because those farms tend to be small and show little or no profit, it appears that MAFF has concluded that small farms are inefficient and must amalgamate to become competitive.

But Mr Harts own studies over many years show that it is the combination of small fields and traditional boundaries – the very things the public values – which make them so unprofitable.

Every operation, even checking livestock, takes much longer in small fields than in large ones, he says. And the length of hedge or wall or woodland edge and, therefore, maintenance costs per hectare, is very much higher.

"It is time we worked out the full cost of countryside management and the debt we owe to many of those small farmers for looking after difficult country that tourists and the public value so highly. It is labour intensive work," he says.

A further point about those traditional boundaries is that they provide a haven for wildlife and are considered important enough to have been given a degree of legal protection which now makes it difficult to remove them.

Despite some field amalgamations in the past, the average field size in the livestock areas is still small, leaving those farms condemned to permanent inefficiency when judged by conventional economic costings, he argues.

Amalgamating farms will not change field size if field boundaries cannot be removed; a simple point, but one which MAFF appears to have missed, he says.

While MAFF appears adamant that it will not consider any form of modulation which does not bear equally on all farmers, Mr Hart is equally adamant that the current system of support favours big arable farms which also enjoy the efficiency benefits of large fields.

That is scandalously unfair to the farmers with small fields, especially so when most of the farms with small fields are themselves only small, he maintains.

He believes strongly that the inequity is so startling that it should be corrected. And, far from fossilising farm size, he believes it might make amalgamations more feasible in cases where the owners chose that route.

Mr Hart has worked out in detail a scheme by which support payments would be made on every metre of field boundary, with different rates for different types of boundary. They would be transparent payments for something the public wants and would partially compensate those with small fields for their countryside management costs.

The payments would also be fully decoupled from production, making them acceptable under World Trade Organisation rules. The transition from current support payments could be done in stages, he believes.

MODULATIONBYFIELD ANDBOUNDARY TYPE

&#8226 Field size determines efficiency more than farm size.

&#8226 Maintenance of hedges, walls, trees, is labour intensive and costs far more per hectare for small fields.

&#8226 Public likes the landscape of fields with trees and traditional boundaries.

&#8226 Those boundaries provide havens for wildlife.

&#8226 Amalgamating farms with small fields will not improve efficiency.

&#8226 Traditional boundaries now protected by law.

&#8226 Current support system favours big farms with big fields – time to redress the balance.